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Knutsen v. Cegalis

Supreme Court of Vermont

July 7, 2017

Raymond Knutsen
Karen Cegalis

         On Appeal from Superior Court, Rutland Unit, Family Division Nancy Corsones, J.

          Robert P. McClallen, Rutland, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Karen Cegalis, Pro Se, Burlington, Defendant-Appellant.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson, Eaton and Carroll, JJ.

          REIBER, C.J.

         ¶ 1. Mother appeals pro se from the trial court's denial of her motion to modify parental rights and responsibilities for son L.C. Although the court found that mother had shown a real, substantial, and unanticipated change in circumstances, it concluded that transferring custody to mother at this juncture was not in L.C.'s best interests. Mother argues that the court's findings do not support its conclusion, particularly given its determination that father and stepmother are not credible witnesses. As set forth below, we conclude that the court acted within its discretion in assessing L.C.'s best interests and we therefore affirm its decision. We emphasize, however, that the trial court has now set a clear benchmark for father and stepmother's behavior, and any further attempts at alienation may well affect the best-interest analysis and warrant a change in custody. See Miller-Jenkins v. Miller-Jenkins, 2010 VT 98, ¶ 25, 189 Vt. 518, 12 A.3d 768 (mem.) ("One parent's attempts to hamper the other's parent-child relationship . . . typically demonstrates a lack of regard for the child's best interests and suggests that a transfer of custody may well be in the child's best interests.").

         ¶ 2. Mother also challenges the court's denial of her request for attorney's fees. We agree with mother that she is entitled to such fees given father's egregious and ongoing effort to alienate her from L.C., which prompted the action at issue here. We therefore reverse the court's denial of mother's request for attorney's fees and remand for additional proceedings on this issue.

         ¶ 3. Finally, mother informed the Court during oral argument that on March 10, 2017, father moved to suspend her visitation with L.C. The trial court suspended mother's visitation on March 10, 2017, and mother indicates that she has had no parent-child contact since that date, including during the week of April vacation that the trial court had previously ordered. Given the history of this case, any delays in the process of reestablishing mother's relationship with the child are profoundly concerning. If the trial court has not yet done so, we direct the court to hold a hearing on resuming mother's parent-child contact within fourteen days of the date of this decision and to consider awarding additional contact to make up for the time lost due to father's actions.

         I. Prior Rulings

         ¶ 4. We recently recounted in detail the long and heartbreaking history of this case. See Knutsen v. Cegalis, 2016 VT 2, 201 Vt. 138, 137 A.3d 734. We do not repeat that history here. Essentially, since 2012, when L.C. was five years old, father and stepmother have been "waging war against mother and making allegations of abuse [against mother and her then-boyfriend] that were not true." Id. ¶ 19. Through their actions, father and stepmother deprived mother of any contact with L.C. for many years and "destroyed the child's formerly good relationship with mother." Id. ¶¶ 19, 21. The court found father and stepmother solely responsible for L.C.'s trauma and for his utter estrangement from mother. Id. Simply put, father and stepmother have "impeded reunification" with mother "every step of the way."[1] Id. ¶ 25.

         ¶ 5. Despite father and stepmother's egregious behavior, the trial court has thus far declined to modify parental rights and responsibilities for the child. In a February 2015 order, the court concluded that "it could not simply order the child to live with mother, even though it was 'the right thing to do.' " Id. ¶ 21. Instead, the court considered the statutory best-interest factors, and found "the quality of the child's present adjustment to his home, school, and community, and the potential effect of any change" controlling. Id. In its February 2015 ruling, the court determined that transferring custody to mother-when the child had not visited mother's new home, did not know her new community, and would have to attend a new school-would cause "a 'violent dislocation' cautioned against by this Court in deciding modification of parental rights cases." Id. Given L.C.'s then-existing mental health needs, the court also suspended efforts to reunify L.C. with mother, with certain conditions. Mother was denied any parent-child contact, with the exception of letters to be mailed directly to L.C.'s attorney. Father was directed to "immediately obtain a child-trauma therapist, and to refrain from interfering, or allowing stepmother to interfere, with the child's therapy." [2] Id. ¶ 24. The court ordered that on or before L.C.'s eleventh birthday in August 2016, L.C. must recommence office visits with a therapist, with a goal toward reunification with mother. Id.

         ¶ 6. We upheld this decision on appeal, although we agreed that "father and stepmother have traumatized the child and completely alienated him from his mother." Id. ¶ 28. We acknowledged mother's justifiable "frustration at father's and stepmother's interference in the reunification process since at least 2013 and the distressing unfairness of being denied contact with her child for more than three years based wholly upon false accusations." Id. ¶ 34. Notwithstanding our concerns, we concluded that the trial court had properly focused its analysis on L.C.'s best interests, and we affirmed its decision "not because the father and stepmother are correct in their accusations, or to reward or endorse the course of conduct in which they have engaged, but because the trial court's judgment regarding the best-interest criteria was factually based and legally correct." Id. ¶ 33. We emphasized that mother was "not without recourse should father and stepmother continue to interfere with her attempts at reunification or should they defy the trial court's orders." Id. ¶ 34.

         II. Current Ruling

         A. Change in Circumstances

         ¶ 7. It is apparent that during the pendency of the 2015 appeal, father and stepmother continued to wage war against mother. In October 2015, mother filed the emergency motion to modify at issue here. She argued that father continued to deliberately and repeatedly undermine and defy the court's orders. The trial court agreed. At a September 2016 hearing, the court concluded that father's serious and blatant violations of its prior order constituted a real, substantial, and unanticipated change of circumstances. As the court explained, it had expressly prohibited the parties from publishing L.C.'s medical records to any third person, yet stepmother had provided L.C.'s private medical information-a trauma therapy report-to the media, which father had at least "tacitly condoned, " the trial court said. Father's attorney also submitted this same report as an exhibit to a motion to stay father's deposition in a separate civil suit that mother had filed. The court observed that father did not repudiate his attorney's actions or attempt to rescind this filing.

         ¶ 8. Father also violated the clear prohibition against interfering with L.C's therapy. Father wrote several letters to L.C.'s trauma therapist at the inception of therapy, attempting to sway her opinion. He continued his effort to have mother "prosecuted, " telling the therapist that providing the trauma therapy report to L.C.'s attorney "may finally result in a real investigation taking place, rather than a court-ordered cover up." Father also informed the therapist that "people are currently ...

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